Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It was 20 years ago, and St. Christopher teacher Lynnette Sawyer wanted to put some items on display to help teach her students about Hispanic culture and history.
“The Best Glass Co. offered to fix the glass for free, and that was the beginning,” said Sawyer, the museum’s founder and executive director. “I talked to different cultural groups in the area to find art to use, and that was where we kept everything for the first two years.”
The past two decades, Sawyer and the museum have led a nomadic existence. During that period, the museum has occupied at least five different spaces, from the Nevada Association of Latin Americans to community centers around the city. In November the museum moved into its sixth home, a 2,500-square-foot space in the Boulevard mall, 3680 S. Maryland Parkway. An official grand opening was Jan. 27.
Most recently the museum was housed in the lobby of a building across from Springs Preserve where CenturyLink now resides. The building was sold, and the museum had to move out of the 10,000-square-foot space.
An anonymous donor came forward to cover the bill for the mall space for the museum, which is nonprofit and has an annual budget of $30,000-$50,000 that comes from donors, membership fees, events and workshops, Sawyer said.
Now that the museum is in a more central, and structured, location, Sawyer said it is offering more classes and community events.
At the museum there is art from 21 Spanish-speaking countries. Fourteen countries, including Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador, are well represented with displays put together in part by local cultural organizations. Artworks from many local artists adorn the wall, and much of those works are for sale.
“I’m a teacher by profession, and part of growing up is learning about yourself, your background and history,” said Sawyer, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “It’s difficult for teachers to cover a lot of history and details of different cultures. There is very little time for that these days, especially as there is more and more emphasis on testing. Cities need places like the museum to help pass on this history and culture. Many of the artists here are Las Vegans of Hispanic descent. This is our history, and places like this help show the world that Las Vegas is more than just casinos.”
Sawyer says traffic at the museum is not necessarily up in its new location, but she is seeing new people who have never experienced the museum.
“It’s a new demographic,” she said. “Before we were in the lobby of a business. Maybe we would get people passing through to pay bills. Now it’s mall shoppers who are discovering it.”
Sawyer said she expected the museum to get more visitors as word spread about the move.
On Thursday, Christina De Los Reyes wandered into the museum and inquired about ceramics classes.
“I have a kiln, and I want to use it,” said De Los Reyes. “I saw something on TV about the new location, but when I asked the security guard he had no idea this was here.”
Despite all of the museum’s moves, Sawyer never has spent her days fretting over whether the museum would have a home from year to year. Rather, Sawyer has strived to weave the museum into the fabric of community so that its continued existence is without question.
“I didn’t worry about not having a place,” she said. “What I did do was try to develop programs so we would be respected in the community and seen as stable. We do field trips for local schoolkids, there is a summer program for children, art classes, workshops, dances and musical performances, and we started the Las Vegas Latino Short Film Festival.”
Freddy Chavez, 46, a Bolivian artist who works with recycled materials, set up in the museum for a demonstration Thursday and showed off some of the masks and other items.
“The new location in the mall is great,” said Chavez, who will also offer his class on Thursday, Feb. 16. “There are a lot of kids here who are Hispanic but don’t know Spanish and do not have a strong connection to their roots. They come here and see a part of the history of their parents. We’ve also had people just walking by who see me working, or see something on the walls, and they come inside and start asking more questions.”
While Sawyer has adapted to the museum’s semiregular migrations, she says a current goal of the museum board is to raise enough money to find a permanent location. She hopes that by the time the museum celebrates its 25th anniversary it will have found a place to “settle in.”
In the coming weeks the museum will play host to a coquito (Puerto Rican alcoholic drink) contest on Feb. 17, Dominican Republic Cultural Week Feb. 22-28 and a live art show by local artist Wilson Posada on Feb. 25. Visit hispanicmuseumnv.com or call 773-2203 for more information.